The WNBA is the longest running women’s professional sports league in United States’ history, but prior to its inaugural season of 1997, there were other attempts to bring professional women’s basketball to the states.
In honor of Women’s History Month, LasVegasAces.com takes a look back at the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL), which competed from 1978-81.
The Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) was the brainchild of a gentleman named Bill Byrne who at one time was the director of player personnel for the Chicago entry in the World Football League. Interest in college and international basketball was on the rise, and with the attention that would be given the 1980 Summer Olympic Games, Byrne felt that the time for a professional women’s basketball league had come.
Eight original franchises were awarded at a cost of $50,000 per team, and the WBL suited up for the first time in 1978 in the form of the Iowa Cornets, New Jersey Gems, Milwaukee Does, Chicago Hustle, Minnesota Fillies, Dayton Rockettes, New York Stars and Houston Angels.
The league held its first draft on July 18, 1978 at the Essex house in New York City where Ann Meyers and Rita Easterling were the top two selections. In all, 80 players were selected in the draft, and player salaries ranged from $3,600 to $12,000.
The first major snag with the WBL’s plan came when one of the game’s best players, Lusia Harris, decided not to accept the Houston Angels’ offer and instead kept her job as an admissions counselor at Delta State. Snag number two came in the form of Carol Blazejowski and Meyers, both of whom opted to keep their amateur eligibility intact for the 1980 Olympics rather than sign a professional contract. With a number of the game’s top players declining to participate, the league lacked some star power.
“Machine Gun” Molly Bolin, the first player to sign with the WBL, eventually became the league’s poster child despite the fact that she had never played the five-on-five version of the game. Part of the reason for Bolin’s emergence was her appearance — blonde hair, blue eyes and an athletic figure — which supposedly caught the eye of male sportswriters. But prior to joining the WBL, she was a star under Iowa’s six-on-six high school format once scoring 80 points in a game, and Bolin easily made the transition to the professional game averaging 16 points per game as a rookie (watch Bolin set what was then the U.S. Women’s Pro Basketball record of 54 points in a game on January 13, 1980).
Approximately 8,000 fans saw Chicago top Milwaukee 92-87 at Milwaukee Arena in the first WBL game on December 9, 1978. By midseason, the Angels sat atop the Eastern Division at 19-6 and the Cornets and Hustle were tied in the Western Division standings with identical 15-10 marks. The league’s all-star game was held at Madison Square Garden on March 14, 1979.
The WBL’s playoff format called for four teams to advance to the postseason, and the Houston Angels led the way winning the East with a 26-8 record, averaging 99.4 points per game while giving up 90.5. The Angels swept New York in the Eastern Division Championship round, advancing to face Iowa in the WBL Finals. The Cornets and Angels split the first four games, and in the deciding Game 5, played before 5,978 fans at Hofheinz Pavilion, Houston defeated Iowa 110-104.
Rita Easterling took home league MVP honors for the season as well as the all-star game as she averaged more than 10 assists per game and topped the league’s single-game scoring charts with a 44-point effort.
The WBL’s second season brought quite a bit of change. The Dayton Rockettes ceased operations, but seven expansion teams (Washington Metros, Philadelphia Fox, St. Louis Streak, Dallas Diamonds, California Dreams, San Francisco Pioneers, New Orleans Pride) joined the fray bringing the league to 14 teams. The pioneers were co-owned by actors Alan Alda (M*A*S*H) and Mike Connors (Mannix).
The league also switched to a three-division format to accommodate the additional teams, expanded the schedule from 34 games to 36, and added two more playoff teams to the mix. Future WNBA players Nancy Lieberman, Lynette Woodard and Valerie Still were on the draft board as was Ann Meyers, although Lieberman and Woodard had yet to complete their college eligibility.
The New York Stars, led by Althea Gwynn, claimed the Eastern Division regular season championship followed by the expansion New Orleans Pride. Iowa made a return trip to the playoffs, this time as a member of the Midwest Division, with the Minnesota Fillies finishing second. The 1978-79 WBL Champion Houston Angels began their quest for back-to-back titles by edging out the Pioneers for bragging rights in the Western Division.
New York and Iowa received first-round byes in the playoffs, while San Francisco eliminated the defending champs two-games-to-one, and the Fillies topped New Orleans by the same two-games-to-one count. New York and Iowa advanced to the WBL Championship where the Stars topped the Gems three-games-to-one. The teams combined to average 228 points per game during the series.
Ann Meyers and Molly Bolin shared co-MVP honors that season with Bolin averaging 32.8 points per game on the year.
As quickly as the WBL expanded in its second season, it imploded for season number three. Both WBL Champions, Houston and New York, folded after the 1979-80 season as did Iowa and Milwaukee. Washington and Philadelphia actually disbanded before the second WBL season was complete.
The California Dreams moved to Nebraska where they became the Wranglers and the New England Gulls were added as an expansion team giving the WBL nine teams for the 1980-81 season while returning to the two division format of the inaugural season. The league’s owners also ousted league founder Bill Byrne following the WBL’s sophomore campaign.
Financial difficulties, although expected, caused more of a strain on the league than originally anticipated, as numerous teams were late with paychecks, cut back on meal money and travel expenses and began piling up additional debts. Ann Meyers refused to report to training camp in 1980 because the New Jersey Gems still owed her money from the previous season.
The league also failed to receive any benefit from the 1980 Olympics as they had hoped since the United States boycotted the games in Moscow that year.
There was some good news in the form of Nancy Lieberman (Dallas Diamonds) and Carol Blazejowski (New Jersey Gems), both of whom joined the WBL for its third season of competition.
Both players helped raise awareness, interest and attendance during the year, but the financial strains proved to be too much. Teams continued to miss paychecks, and in mid-January, the New England Gulls staged a walkout prior to a game vs. San Francisco. The Gulls never made it to the all-star break. The St. Louis franchise also packed up its belongings before season’s end, and the team’s reportedly lost an average of $350,000 each.
The Nebraska Wranglers were eventually crowned WBL Champions after defeating the Lieberman-led Dallas Diamonds.
In the summer of 1981, owner of the Diamonds and acting commissioner Dave Almstead called three owners meetings before sending out a press release officially announcing the demise of the WBL.
Lannin, Joanne. A History of Basketball for Girls and Women: From Bloomers to Big Leagues. Minneapolis: LernerSports. 2000.
Bradley, Robert. Association For Professional Basketball Research.